After my second viewing of “IN A DREAM YOU SAW A WAY TO SURVIVE AND YOU WERE FULL OF JOY” at the Contemporary Austin, I remember that surviving 2022 hasn’t exactly been a cakewalk. We witnessed war in Ukraine, human rights violations here at home, more mass shootings, food and energy shortages, natural disasters, and increasing threats from climate change.
Should I go on?
This exhibition takes its name from a text-based artwork by Jenny Holzer from her series, Survival (1983-85) that was recently unveiled as a mural on the Seventh Street wall of the Contemporary’s downtown Jones Center. Work by eight women artists fills both floors of the Jones Center, and each of the artists expresses human vulnerability amidst current societal conditions, and amidst the wreckage, carve out space to build more hospitable lives.
Danielle McKinney’s six acrylic on canvas paintings are intimate in scale. They depict solitary women found in images online and therefore have a strong photographic sensibility in their cropping and perspectives. “Bystander” (2022) looks down at a woman stretched out on the beach with her arms above her head smoking a cigarette. Her closed eyes and imagined warmth from the sun suggest relaxation, but an agitated flock of seagulls surround her. It’s unclear if the visual link to Francisco Goya’s “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” is intentional, but it seems likely.
Another seemingly simple McKinney work, “Dreamer” (2021) tightly examines a woman, eyes closed, and tucked into her bedcovers with a conch shell propped against one ear. Does the soothing sound of the ocean help her sleep? Aren’t we all seeking white noise sleep sound solace from our devices and does it really help our survival? The practice of meditation asks for inward focus to find peace, but today retaining any true interior dialogue is a rarity, replaced instead by voices groomed to function profusely in public and on social platforms.
San Francisco-based Clare Rojas’ paintings are a revelation. Rojas paints larger in scale (than McKinney) in oil on linen and focuses mainly on women with references to myth and folklore. Her style has folk qualities, with large flat areas of colors and carefully arranged scenes in landscapes and interiors with selections of simplified objects and animals with symbolic portent. Each painting is an autonomous scene and possesses a sense of alluring completeness.
In Rojas’, “Tired of thinking” (2021), a woman in a blue dress sits cross legged on a bed looking directly at the viewer. Her recently removed shoes sit nearby along with a half-filled glass of red wine, a book with the painting’s title (Tired of thinking) written on the spine, a red pen on her right, and a black dog nearby. We want to read into the items placed in the scene, as they seem so deliberately chosen. The glass half full — passage of time? Empty shoes – like Van Eyck’s clogs, sacred ground? Is the dog fidelity? Its cut-out appearance is reminiscent of dog under Picasso’s table in “Three Musicians.”
Or perhaps these items aren’t iconographical, and like with dreams, more subjective, so assigning meaning while tempting, is elusive or futile – after all there’s no evidence of the true value of dream interpretation to our lives. A wall label quotes Rojas: “I like to represent women in their times of strength, with a grace and vulnerability that I believe is courageous I am painting images that are both intimate and miniature, while being large scale. I am trying to articulate what it feels like to exist in a vast amount of space, and how that can make one feel small.”
(Rojas is also represented by “Swan Mother,” a bronze sculpture on the grounds at the Contemporary’s Laguna Gloria site, a commission from the museum.)
While Rojas’ painting tease mystery and serenity, Tala Madani’s videos make you laugh. Born in Tehran, living in Los Angeles, Madani makes animated videos that take on constructs of masculinity and femininity. In this exhibition’s she presents viewers with a literal view of the term “shit mom.”
The best is “Shit Mom Animation 1” (2021) a 7.55 minute single channel animation with color and sound. In it a painted smudgy brown figure representing, yes, a mother made of excrement, morphs into different shapes as it smudges and streaks everything she touches. As she moves through rooms of what appears to be a well-appointed Italianate villa she defiles all that is beautiful. Her bodily discharges ruin crisp white duvets and sofa covers, preventing her from rest. When she cleans, things only become dirtier. Sounds of squishes and splats enhance the comedic narrative. The frustrating states of motherhood and ideas about the artist’s mark come through clearly. (But I was also reminded of the HBO show “White Lotus” and its extravagant grotesqueness, maybe it was the interiors.)
Fresh off a successful touring solo show which stopped by the San Antonio Museum of Art last year, Wendy Red Star offers an installation addressing the Crow Fair Parade. The artist was born and raised on the Apsáalooke (Crow) reservation in Montana and the fair (established in 1904) and parade are important cultural events in which families celebrate by designing floats to reflect their identities and accomplishments. Vibrant images made using photo-collage depict parade vehicles from past Crow parades. These images flank a three-dimensional sculptural pick-up truck, “Never Slips (cause it’s a real good one),” modeled after the Red Star family’s float. Together these objects paint a picture of Crow culture, Apsáalooke, survival as well as the resilience of the larger indigenous community.
Ellie Ga often uses visual tools from the social sciences in her art. Her video, “Quarries” (2022) depicts hands placing stacks of transparencies on light boxes and a voice -over narrating concepts in a non-linear fashion so stories don’t synchronize and it’s tough to find a through-line. Choppy auditory information references prehistoric tools in Kenya, photography, the artist’s brother’s paralysis, and the labor of stonemasons Lisbon. Of this deliberate denial of linear narrative and her methods applied to videomaking, Ga writes, “I transformed these various ways of transmitting knowledge into a text meant to be spoken – but not in the flowing style of everyday speech. It’s a staccato process of chipping away at sentences. Quarries is arranged as a series of parentheses gathering around stories that can’t really be told.” Ga questions human survival as it’s told through archives and history, highlighting how knowledge is conveyed, even if circuitously.
Another artist whose practice is research driven exploring oral histories and sourcing scholarly fields, is Houston-based Adriana Corral. Corral installed a white embroidered flag on a plinth parallel with the floor. Originally made for the site-specific work, “Unearthed: Desenterrado,” the white cotton flag appeared at the historic Rio Vista Farm in Socorro, Texas, along the U.S.-Mexico border. The white-on-white embroidered imagery depicts two national symbols of patriotism — an “American” bald eagle and a “Mexican” golden eagle. The Rio Vista site was one of numerous human rights violations on Mexican workers, Corral notes, including “humiliating physical examinations and hazardous DDT fumigations before being cleared for strenuous, low-wage work.” Accompanying the flag are blind debossed prints from Corral’s project “Latitudes,” lined up on along a wall. In them, she reproduces the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese in barely legible text. Corral’s multi-media work encourages dialogue about the human condition and dialogue as a powerful salve.
Lastly, “IN A DREAM…” features two more large-scale installations addressing gender and race — Juliana Huxtable in the downstairs gallery, and Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley immediately above in the second-floor gallery.
Huxtable created the fictional character of Midnight Macumba who has physical traits of a bat, and in the process of becoming some super- hero-hybrid, flies across wall collages made of uterus patterned wallpaper. Her figure intermingles with graphic red and black tabloid covers like the one from the Daily Sun reading “FACE OFF: GENETICALLY MODIFIED ‘COW WOMAN’ ATTACKS TRANS ACTIVISTS “I MAY BE PART COW BUT I AM A BIIOLOCAL FEMALE!” The artist’s confrontational satire using hyperbolic language of right-wing media, is part of her effort to free race and gender from strictly self-referential limit.
In Brathwaite-Shirley’s “GET HOME SAFE” race and gender are experienced through in interactive role-playing video games asking viewers to navigate a treacherous walk home at night while Black and trans.
Screens with messages like IF YOU LOOK BEHIND YOU FOR MORE THAN 3 SECONDS YOU DIE, warn “players” of real-life dire threats. The artist uses virtual spaces, video games, and image-making as tools not just to take refuge but to take back power. In another work “The Power of your Presence” (2022) viewers can use their mobile devices and a QR code to experience a work of art that includes their own image projected on a screen. Technology makes a surprisingly explicit statement about physical safety in a time when violent crime on Black trans people is on the rise.
Looking ahead, we might ask who will save us when our institutions fail? When the doctors, nurses, police, and politicians, the educational systems, and even the family dynamics fall short, who will it be?
The title of the exhibition and Holzer’s mural reads like a directive. “You found a way to survive …” The use of the pronoun “You” speaks to all of us and tells us we must be agents of change.
“IN A DREAM YOU SAW A WAY TO SURVIVE AND YOU WERE FULL OF JOY” is curated by Robin K. Williams, Curator, with Julie Le, Assistant Curator, both of The Contemporary Austin.
The exhibition is on view at The Contemporary Austin’s downtown location, 700 Congress Avenue through January 29, 2023. For more information log onto www.thecontemporaryaustin.org